Mary Rose is, literally, a sinister play: right-handed J M Barrie, suffering writer’s cramp, wrote it with his left hand. It is, in a way, the anti-Peter Pan, dealing not with the wonderful adventures of children in Never Never Land, but with the loss felt by those left behind — an adult play, rather than one for children, and a post-World War play, too, rather than one set in the Arcadian Edwardian era of long, golden summers.
It starts with a young man, Harry, visiting the house he used to live in before he ran away to sea at the age of 12. Now empty and a long time on the market, the house is reputed to be haunted, though its stony caretaker, Mrs Otery, is not to be drawn on the matter. The second act gives us the back-story: when she was eleven, a young girl called Mary Rose disappeared, for twenty days, on a small island in the Hebrides, where she had been sketching whilst her father fished. Her parents were frantic; but then Mary Rose returned thinking only a few hours had passed. As a grown-up woman she apparently remembers nothing of the incident, though feels a vague fondness for the island. She tries to convince her husband-to-be Simon to spend their honeymoon there. He, having been told what happened, thinks better of it, until several years into their marriage, by which time they have a two-year-old boy, and Simon has grown to disbelieve the story about Mary Rose’s disappearance. They visit the island, and she disappears again — not for twenty days this time, but twenty-five years. When she returns, she’s not a day older. Everyone else, of course, has aged: her parents are now old, her husband is grey and used to being alone, her baby boy has grown up and run away to sea. The play, which for much of its time is a lightly comic portrait of a rather idealised, Edwardian ‘perfect’ marriage — with the man being decent, strong and a little stupid, and the woman being quirky, wilful and doting — is bookended by a sense of utter loss, both loss-through-absence and an even worse sort of loss, when the presence of someone longed-for or loved but irretrievably changed only serves as a reminder of all that is lost. Mary Rose’s parents, Mr and Mrs Morland, lose Mary Rose (at first through marriage, though she continues to live at home, then to the mysterious island); husband Simon loses his wife; Mary Rose loses her parents and her husband and her child. When she returns after her second absence, the years have come between her and those that remain, and she can only pine for her baby, who is now not only grown up but run away. This multi-generational, omnidirectional sense of loss is even more concentrated on the boy, Harry, whose running away at the age of twelve isn’t explained, but could be seen as an attempt to lose even himself, having spent his early years so overshadowed by the loss of his mother.
Often described as a ghost play (because, even though she’s said to have died, Mary Rose somehow lingers in the house to which she returned, acting as both a playful, absent-minded child, and a pining mother), Mary Rose resonates just as much with fairy stories about people who disappear — as in Elizabeth Hand’s Wylding Hall, or, much more intensely, Alan Garner’s Boneland — or who disappear then return — as in Graham Joyce’s Some Kind of Fairy Tale — only to feel severed from those they once loved. The key fantasy element, Mary Rose’s disappearance, is never explained. (The island is known as ‘The Island that Likes to be Visited’, though as a local notes, ‘an island that had visitors would not need to want to be visited’.) Perhaps this is why the overlap between the ghostly and the fairy seems to work so well: it gives the play an uncompromising feeling of dropping you into an utterly unexplained abyss, a terrible fact that is just there, and which can never be assimilated or ameliorated. Which is, of course, what loss feels like.
It’s easy to see parallels with J M Barrie’s life. When his elder brother (his mother’s favourite) died in a skating accident just before turning 14, Barrie tried but failed to take the boy’s place. Later in life he adopted the Davies children (one of whom inspired Peter Pan), after both their parents died; then Barrie’s favourite of those children, George, died in the War. But it’s odd the play doesn’t feel, to me, to be about death, as such, but about a mix of both absence and presence — and a very physical presence, at that (Mary Rose, as a ghost, is not insubstantial, though the caretaker Mrs Otery says ‘she’s as light as air’, linking her with Peter Pan). Of all the parallels in J M Barrie’s life, Mary Rose herself seems most like Barrie’s mother, depressed after the death of her most beloved child, and failing to recognise that child in Barrie himself, who was trying to play the role.
Alfred Hitchcock wanted to make a film of Mary Rose, though it feels like, with Vertigo, he already did, as that film is also about a very physical haunting, centred on a woman who seems trapped in the past and unable to make an emotional connection the male lead desperately needs. If any film captures Mary Rose’s sense of sudden, utterly unexplainable loss, though, it has to be Picnic at Hanging Rock.
One more connection I’d love to make — and it almost but perhaps doesn’t fit — is with David Lindsay’s second novel, The Haunted Woman. Both Lindsay’s novel and Barrie’s play start with someone going over a house being put up for sale, and both deal with a room in that house which is sometimes, unexplainably and supernaturally, inaccessible. (In Mary Rose, the room is the nursery, whose door, though unlocked, is sometimes ‘held’; in The Haunted Woman, there’s a staircase that appears to some people, not to others, and only at certain times, giving access to an area described as ‘far and away the oldest part of the house’ — just as the ‘held’ room in Mary Rose is also ‘the oldest part of the house’.) I like to think of Lindsay — whose books make a lot of reference to theatres, plays, and so on — going to see Barrie’s play and getting the seed of an idea which sparked off his own, very strange, reinterpretation. Mary Rose was first performed on April 22nd, 1920 at the Haymarket Theatre, London; David Lindsay, apparently, began work on The Haunted Woman immediately after the acceptance of his first novel, which was finished in March 1920. Does this fit? I don’t know. But both times I’ve read Mary Rose, the opening reminds me of Lindsay’s second novel.